Racial Profiling

OK - I know this is a heavily contested issue, but I want to discuss one little piece of it.

And, due to some confusion I caused in an earlier thread, let me say at the outset that I mean no one any offense at all - this is an honest question and I am trying only to understand a hotly contested issue better. (So, if you’re offended, that’y your problem, not mine. ;))

I heard a report on NPR about the release of Police Documents in NJ that reveal profiling by the police. Here’s my question:

All other things being equal, isn’t it a fact that, considering the entire US population, a White teen-age boy is less likely to perpetrate a crime than, say, an African-American one?

By “less-likely” I don’t mean any value-judgement. I am asking about statistics. Don’t statistics show that, in a sample of 1,000 randomly selected American teen-age males, you would find more criminals among monorities than among Anglos?

If the statistics do bear this conclusion out, what is wrong with Police acting up those conclusions?

My feeling is that, like so many other things in life, it depends on the degree. If the police profile - whatever it is - is accurate enough so that a significant percentage of the people that they stop are actually guilty, than go for it. But if there is nothing but a slightly higher chance of a person being guilty of something, than the downside of stopping all the innocent people should outweigh the importance of stopping the guilty. This would depend too on the type of crime that the police are focusing on. The more severe the crime the less justification should be needed for a stop.

Apparently there is a feeling that too many innocent black people are being stopped than is justified. I couldn’t say if this is true, but it might be. Certainly however, there is no reason to believe that the percentage of blacks stopped must be equal to the percentage of whites.

One argument is that profiling is inherently self-fulfilling. If you use statistics to say that you need to watch Group X, what do you think next year’s statistics will tell you? Well, Group X, which was closely scrutinized, was found to commit far more crimes than Group Y, which was not. So that means that next year we watch Group X much more than Group Y again, and again the statistics prove us right! And the next year, and the next year, and …

In criminal trials, we generally don’t permit the jury to hear about an accused’s past crimes - even if you might argue that a guy convicted for robbery once is more likely to have done it this time, too.

Why not? Because the above inference is impermissible. We require the State to prove every element of the current crime; we don’t allow for the jury to decide that, because he once committed a crime, he’s more likely to have committed this one.

The same argument applies to racial profiling. Every citizen should have the right to go about his business, unmolested by unwarranted government interference. The mere fact that a citizen is a member of a racial group who commits crimes in disproportionately high numbers is not enough to invade the privacy and dignity of that particular person. The police must make investigative stops based on particularized reasonable and articulable suspicion, not on mere hunches. They should not effect stops based solely on race, as the idea that race consists of, or constibutes to, suspicion, is one this country expressly disavows.

  • Rick


So supposing the facts would be that 80% of blacks in their late teens or early 20s driving expensive cars on the NJ Turnpike are drug dealers (while the whites who drive such cars are predominantly spoiled rich kids), you would believe it is wrong to stop such cars?

Furthermore, suppose eyewitnesses to a crime described the perpetrator as being black, do you think it is okay to pay extra attention to black suspects (some of whom are innocent but are being targeted in part because they are black)?

And I don’t think the rules of evidence at trials is relevent to police work.

Bricker, I am sure you just love questions that begin this way, but I saw on TV… :). On those TV shows, whenever the Prosecutors ask about past crimes, the defense counsel objects (relevance?) then the prosecutor says, “Your Honor, I’m trying to establish a pattern.”

The judge then looks somber and says, “I’ll allow it. But be careful” (or some such nonsense).

You’re saying that this is not allowed IRL?


Thanks for explaining - your explanation is excellent!

Ptahlis is right.

The best answer to your question is it depends. If you look at crime statistics, it tends to even out amongst racial lines. However certain crimes like drug crimes for instance tend to fester more in economically depressed areas. Since more blacks tend to live in such areas, it’s not exactly misleading that you’ll find the incidence of crime more prevalent amongst blacks in those areas.

The problem with profiling is pretty much as Ptahlis pointed out. If you focus on blacks as likely drug suspects, then of course you’ll catch more black suspects.

Another problem with racial profiling is the “all other things being equal” part. In NJ, racial profiling was used to decide who to stop on the highway. There are very few clues apart from the car itself and the race of the occupants. I think the reasoning sometimes went like this: see a white teenager driving a BMW – parents bought it for him; see a black teenager driving a BMW – drug money.

I don’t have statistics for this, but my guess would be no. Again, it gets back to “all other things being equal” and how far you take it. If you are just comparing 13-19 year old males, white v. black, you will probably come up with different results than if you compare 13-19 year old males living in urban environments and family income $15,000 - $25,000, white v. black. I would guess that the narrower your categories, the closer the likelihood would be.

No, it’s a fact that a White teen-age boy is less likely to be charged and/or convicted of a crime than, say, a Black one.

As a long-haired male, 25-40, I have been “randomly selected” to be fully searched no fewer than three times upon reentering the United States. For what were they looking? Nothing in particular; they were just looking at me.

That’s not investigating a crime, that’s fishing for criminals. Ptahlis is right; relying on a premise such as “guys who look like they smoke pot are ten times more likely to be carrying pot” because they are searched ten times more often than a less likely suspect is an inherently flawed premise.

Hey guys,

Ptahlis has made an excellent point, as is his wont, but let’s not get carried away. You cannot arbitrarily decide that all races commit crimes at equal rates and dismiss all proof to the contrary as the result of profiling. The significance of the point is merely that the level of the disparity, to the extent that it is based on arrests that came about through profiling, is likely to be exaggerated. (Here’s a newsflash; there is also a big discrepancy in murder and robbery rates, which are not much affected by profiling if at all).

I should also note that whites are sometimes profiled. In some inner city neighborhoods, a white kid will attract police suspicion that he is there to by drugs.

I drive a big old car. I work part time as a bartender in an area that has a lot of drug dealing on the street not too far away. I have been stopped 3 times by the police and had my car searched when leaving the bar. 2 other nights when I was in the area I was stopped and searched. I think the area police all know me now and I haven’t been stopped in a while. Every time I was stopped they found a reason to stop me, didn’t turn a signal on, snow covering one tail light, or whatever. I never got a ticket or anything, but they always covered themselves in case I was upset about being stopped. I think the look of my car makes them think I’m likely to be dealing drugs or buying drugs. It’s annoying, but I respect the fact that the police have a difficult job and they have to use whatever information is available.

I don’t think that stopping more of one race makes the percentage of arrests for those stops go up. The number of arrests, but not the percentage. So, Ptahlis’s argument is, I think, not too important. I think the police should make efforts to find good reasons for the stops, and I think that criminals will likely give reason because they do not have respect for the law. I think that police should be very careful that none of their own are framing innocents in order to meet quotas or whatever. And, I think that this whole thing is horrible and we should try harder to educate minorities so that they can lead more productive lives.

First, how would these numbers be established? Second, I believe it would be wrong to stop such cars (meaning, I assume, expensive cars driving by young black men). I think there needs to be a valid reason for the stop.

This is a completely different issue. Here we’re talking about an actual crime having been committed, not suspicion of a crime. You also have a witness providing a description, at which point race is just another physical characteristic of the perpetrator. If the eyewitness said the person was 6’ 5", it would be okay to target tall people.

Izzy I think you missed my point in there. I think the focus on race is misleading. Like JeffB I believe if you adjusted the number to reflect economic position, you’d see the rates even out, or at least close. Since minorities are more likely to be poor, I don’t hink it’s that much of a stretch.

Remember, I said:

We do not permit evidence of other crimes to be admitted for the purpose of proving propensity to commit the charged crime. However, it is possible to admit such evidence (called 404(b) evidence in lawyer-speak) for the purpose of proving proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident.

In other words, if I have twice been convicted of dressing up as a clown, taking a pump shotgun into a convenience store, yelling, “It’s payday for me, you bastards!” and then taking all the money… the prosecution could admit that into evidence against me if I were again charged with dressing as a clown and taking a pump shotgun into a convenience store in an effort to rob it.

They probably couldn’t use it, however, if I were charged with robbery for threatening a guy on the street with a baseball bat unless he handed over his wallet.

Even if the evidence were admitted, the judge would likely giving a limiting instruction to the jury, warning them that they were to listen to the evidence only for the purpose of evaluating the common plan aspect, not as substantive evidence that I committed the crime.

Typically, the proponent of 404(b) evidence must survive a motion in limine from the opponent. He must show that the evidence is relevant, sufficiently similar to the charged crime, and that the probative value outweighs the prejudicial value. It’s highly unusual for these issues to be decided for the first time at trial.

Even if the trial court rules adversely on the motion in limine, however, an objection at trial is necessary to preserve the issue for appeal. Perhaps that’s what’s going on on the TV. :slight_smile:

  • Rick

I know this is confusing


If that ratio of stops resulted in drug arrests. You people are missing the point in focusing on the total number of arrests. What I’m saying is that there is a certain percentage of likelihood that a stop will turn out to be for just cause (i.e. that it results in an arrest) that makes a stop justifiable. If that threshhold is met for one ethnic group and not for another then stop the ones for whom it is met. If the threshhold is not met then the profile is wrong and don’t stop them.

Regarding the second point, I was responding to an assertion by bricker that “the idea that race consists of, or constibutes to, suspicion, is one this country expressly disavows”. If that is so then it should make no difference if a crime has been committed or not.


Actually I think you are missing the point of this thread. It makes no difference to a police officer deciding whether to stop someone whether that person is likely to be a criminal based solely on color or based on color and socioeconomic class. The only thing that counts is the likelihood of criminality.

I would agree with you that if there is just cause to stop only poor minorities and the police stop all of them than they should try to refine their stops if possible. (One possible problem might be that there is something of a tendency in the black community to drive nice cars, which makes it hard to distinguish socioeconomic class based on the car being driven).

Even assuming the statistics are correct and do not have some fairly important third causes, the reasoning in this article: The Crazy Incentives of the Drug War shows why this would not be a good way to tackle crime.

Well, this is arguable. In theory it shouldn’t. If 50% of whites are chargeable and 50% of blacks are chargeable then the arrests should reflect those percentages regardless of how many of either group are stopped. However, the anti-profiling folks say that this is not the case. Since blacks are believed to be more likely to be guilty, they are far less likely to get an “officer’s discretion” pass than whites are, and blacks are subjected to more intense scrutiny when they are stopped than are white counterparts. They also argue that increasing the number of arrests is itself inherently racist, and there I agree with them wholeheartedly.


I don’t think you meant that to sound the way it came out VileOrb, but I know what you are trying to say.

*Originally posted by Bricker *

Well, it was. Thank you for clearing it up. You could teach, you know that?

I agree wholeheartedly that this should theoretically be the way things work. The problem that I have here is that I believe the statistical dataset to be biased, and that profiling increases that bias. If there were some way to convince me that our statistics were valid and not self-perpetuating then I would have less difficulty with this argument. Still another hurdle would be the ethical considerationof whether the disproportionate number of inncocent minorities stopped is justified thereby as well.